Binal Patel. Photo courtesy of Binal Patel.

“Now more than ever, being an early educator or administrator means automatically being an advocate, it has become impossible not to see the inequities and to continue not saying anything about it,” Binal Patel says, sharing her experience of going from an assistant preschool teacher to working in policy and systems building for the field of early childhood.

Patel studied economics and computer science in college. After she graduated, she worked for a few years in marketing, but deep down always knew that being a teacher was her calling. 

“A close friend died in a car crash and that jolted me,” she says. “It just hit me that if I was really passionate about working with kids, and I know that teaching is what I want to do, then what am I waiting for, life is too short.” 

And that’s what she did. She earned a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from New York University, and then worked as a preschool teacher at the Phillips Brooks School in California. 

“I remember the school being nothing short of magical, a Reggio-inspired preschool where the children and their curiosity drove our curriculum and work. I was lucky to have been mentored and coached by a wonderful director, Debra Jarjoura, who saw the potential in me. Ever since then, I’ve never looked back.” 

It was the beginning of a journey. Patel went on to work as a teacher for 4- and 5-year-olds at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, an independent school in Cambridge, Mass. 

In 2013, BB&N launched The Family Cooperative, an early childhood center for the children of its faculty and staff, hoping to provide an affordable, high-quality and accessible option. Patel became deeply involved in the planning and eventually led the project as board president. Through this experience, Patel met Gerlinde Hossain-Endl, the director of Cambridge-Ellis School, where Patel later became the assistant director. 

“She really saw leadership in me that I hadn’t even seen in myself,” Patel says of Hossain-Endl, “and she supported me in taking a risk to jump into an administrative role, something I had never considered. It was a scary leap to take, but I never looked back.” 

A few years into her leadership role, Patel got a call from The Family Cooperative. They needed an executive director, and she knew it was her opportunity to realize the vision of the school she had helped to start.

“One of the biggest lessons I learned as a director, and what continues to drive me my work, is how undervalued and underappreciated the teachers are. My job as director was to enable and support them so they could best do their job. That meant removing barriers that got in their way, fighting for higher salaries and better benefits so they didn’t have to work second and third jobs, and providing opportunities for growth and reflection. I knew the high-quality care we offered and all the appreciation we received from parents was because of the teachers.” 

“Staffing my program with the right teachers was my biggest job and retaining those amazing teachers was my biggest challenge. Hiring early educators was tough because every time I wrote an offer letter, I knew I was offering them a lower salary than they expected or even deserved. My hands were tied by the budget. It broke my heart to face these challenges, and I knew that constantly raising tuition was not the answer because there’s a limit to what parents can afford. 

“Staff who were parents and were sending their own children to our school could barely afford it; some of them were paying more in tuition than they were making in salary, so they were actually paying the school to work there.”

Grappling with low salaries is a dilemma that many early education providers face. Some choose to work even harder. Others prevail on their mayors to do more. 

Patel chose to step into the world of early education policy and advocacy. She joined Neighborhood Villages, a nonprofit organization that advocates for “child care policy reform” and designs “innovative, scalable solutions to address the biggest challenges facing child care providers and the families who rely on them.”

“At Neighborhood Villages, the vision of a childcare system is one that I have always dreamt of, and it’s amazing to be able to work with an organization that fights for that vision through advocacy and action. In my work at Neighborhood Villages, I have learned that the model for a childcare system already existed in our own country, and it has been here for decades — in the military. The Department of Defense provides child care that is affordable, very high quality, and offered through a mixed delivery system. This shows that a childcare system is absolutely possible!” 

Patel’s first job at Neighborhood Villages was as the director of Workforce Development, providing support to the state’s Career Pathways Program. She also worked with a “village” of several child care programs in the Boston area to model what a child care system could look like

Then COVID-19 hit. 

Patel had to focus on the programs’ survival. She shifted to the role of Chief Program Officer and Neighborhood Villages shifted to supporting programs through the pandemic, by starting the Boston Children’s Relief Initiative. 

Modeling solutions in the middle of a pandemic included proving that there was a successful way to test providers for COVID-19 – even when state officials were uncertain that this could be done. 

To make the case, Neighborhood Villages connected with economist and MIT professor Simon Johnson, who had previously worked with implementing testing solutions for nursing homes and K-12 schools. Neighborhood Villages began its testing pilot for 500 educators with a New Jersey-based lab called Mirimus. 

“We started the Monday after Thanksgiving,” she says. “For me it’s all part of the work of providing teachers with what they need to do their work well.” 

When the Baker administration announced a plan for Covid testing in K-12 schools, but not early education and care, Patel and Neighborhood Villages took action, drafting a letter to the administration asking for Covid testing parity. 

“The letter was in response to the inequity and frustration of hearing that K-12 schools would be offered a free, robust testing plan, but early education and out-of-school time providers would not. These providers have been open in person since the summer, some even since March, providing care to essential workers through the pandemic.” 

“We drafted the letter, worked with fellow advocates to finalize it, and circulated it to center-based, family childcare, and out-of-school time providers in our network. Over 300 organizations signed on. It really showed the impact of working together for a common goal in this field and the power of a unified voice.”

For now, the pandemic will keep Patel and Neighborhood Villages in reaction mode. But Patel is also looking forward to a future of being more strategic. The next steps, she says, are to lay a foundation for a childcare system, and think hard about how to raise salaries so teachers can afford the cost of living in Massachusetts. 

“We have to ask ourselves if we appreciate and value the work of the early education sector and the positive impact that they have on children’s brain development and on our society. That’s why at Neighborhood Villages, we really believe that a childcare system is possible and necessary. We are working to try and create a successful system on a smaller scale, and think about how to achieve these outcomes on a larger scale.”